Madonna–whore complex

In psychoanalytic literature, a Madonna–whore complex is the inability to maintain sexual arousal within a committed, loving relationship.[1] First identified by Sigmund Freud, under the rubric of psychic impotence,[2] this psychological complex is said to develop in men who see women as either saintly Madonnas or debased prostitutes. Men with this complex desire a sexual partner who has been degraded (the whore) while they cannot desire the respected partner (the Madonna).[3] Freud wrote: "Where such men love they have no desire and where they desire they cannot love."[4] Clinical psychologist Uwe Hartmann, writing in 2009, stated that the complex "is still highly prevalent in today's patients".[3]

In sexual politics the view of women as either Madonnas or whores limits women's sexual expression, offering two mutually exclusive ways to construct a sexual identity.[5]

The term is also used popularly, if sometimes with subtly different meanings.


Freud argued that the Madonna–whore complex was caused by a split between the affectionate and the sexual currents in male desire.[6] Oedipal and castration fears prohibit the affection felt for past incestuous objects from being attached to women who are sensually desired: "The whole sphere of love in such persons remains divided in the two directions personified in art as sacred and profane (or animal) love".[6] In order to minimize anxiety, the man categorizes women into two groups: women he can admire and women he finds sexually attractive. Whereas the man loves women in the former category, he despises and devalues the latter group.[7] Psychoanalyst Richard Tuch suggests that Freud offered at least one alternative explanation for the Madonna–whore complex:

This earlier theory is based not on oedipal-based castration anxiety but on man's primary hatred of women, stimulated by the child's sense that he had been made to experience intolerable frustration and/or narcissistic injury at the hands of his mother. According to this theory, in adulthood the boy-turned-man seeks to avenge these mistreatments through sadistic attacks on women who are stand-ins for mother.[7]

It is possible that such a split may be exacerbated when the sufferer is raised by a cold but overprotective mother[8] – a lack of emotional nurturing paradoxically strengthening an incestuous tie.[9] Such a man will often court someone with maternal qualities, hoping to fulfill a need for intimacy unmet in childhood, only for a return of the repressed feelings surrounding the earlier relationship to prevent sexual satisfaction in the new.[6]

Another theory claims that the Madonna–whore complex derives from the representations of women as either madonnas or whores in mythology and Judeo-Christian theology rather than developmental disabilities of individual men.[10]

Sexual politics

Naomi Wolf considered that the sexual revolution had paradoxically intensified the importance of the virgin-whore split, leaving women to contend with the worst aspects of both images.[11] Others consider that both men and women find integrating sensuality and an ideal femininity difficult to do within the same relationship.[12]

In popular culture

See also


  1. Kaplan, Helen Singer (1988). "Intimacy disorders and sexual panic states". Journal of Sex & Marital Therapy. 14 (1): 312. doi:10.1080/00926238808403902.
  2. W. M. Bernstein, A Basic Theory of Neuropsychoanalysis (2011) p. 106
  3. 1 2 Hartmann, Uwe (2009). "Sigmund Freud and His Impact on Our Understanding of Male Sexual Dysfunction". The Journal of Sexual Medicine. 6 (8): 23322339. doi:10.1111/j.1743-6109.2009.01332.x.
  4. Freud, Sigmund (1912). "Über die allgemeinste Erniedrigung des Liebeslebens" [The most prevalent form of degradation in erotic life]. Jahrbuch für psychoanalytische und psychopathologische Forschungen. 4: 4050.
  5. Denmark, Florence; Paludi, Michele A. Psychology of Women: A Handbook of Issues and Theories. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1993, pp. 49394, ISBN 978-0-313-26295-1.
  6. 1 2 3 Sigmund Freud, On Sexuality (PFL 7) p. 251
  7. 1 2 Tuch, Richard (2010). "Murder on the Mind: Tyrannical Power and Other Points along the Perverse Spectrum". The International Journal of Psychoanalysis 91 (1): 141-162. doi:10.1111/j.1745-8315.2009.00220.x.
  8. P. A Sacco, Madonna Complex (2011) p. 48
  9. Neville Symington, Narcissism (1993) p. 99
  10. Feinman, Clarice. Women in the criminal justice system. Westport, Conn.: Praeger, 1994, pp. 34, ISBN 978-0-275-94486-5.
  11. Naomi Wolf, Promiscuities (1997) p. 5 and p. 131
  12. Robert Bly/Marion Woodman, The Maiden King (1999) p. 203
  13. Gay, Volney P. (2001). Joy and the Objects of Psychoanalysis: Literature, Belief, and Neurosis. SUNY series in psychoanalysis and culture. Albany: State University of New York Press. p. 109. ISBN 978-0-7914-5099-4.
  14. Gordon, Paul. Dial "M" for Mother: A Freudian Hitchcock. Madison, N.J.: Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 2008, pp. 8991, ISBN 978-0-8386-4133-0.
  15. Quoted in N. Corcoran ed., Do You, Mr Jones? (2002) p. 269

Further reading

External links

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